Sweden established the colony of New Sweden along the Delaware River in1638, in present day Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The colony included ethnically Finnish settlers as well as Swedish settlers because parts of present day Finland were then part of Sweden. The colony was seized by the Dutch in 1655 and incorporated into Dutch New Netherland, but the settlers remained. A consequence of the short-lived New Sweden colony was the continued interest of the Swedish people in North America and continued emigration. The largest wave of Swedish emigration to the United States was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Swedish communities were established in many parts of the United States, but especially in New England, the upper Midwest, and the Northwest.
Swedish song in the United States has often had an appeal far beyond the Swedish community. Jenny Lind, an internationally famous Swedish operatic soprano, became wildly popular in the United States through a concert tour sponsored by P. T. Barnum between 1850 and 1852, famously giving her earnings to charity. She included Swedish songs in her performances along with selections from German and Italian operas. Sheet music was published based on her songs and many places and products were named for her.
In the late nineteenth century Scandinavian and Swedish festivals, often held at midsummer, became popular in the parts of the country where there were Swedish communities and these were venues where songs, music, and dances would be performed. Swedish immigrants formed many choral societies. These groups gave performances in the Swedish community, at Scandinavian festivals, and for general audiences. Swedish American choral groups often performed a combination of art songs, popular songs, religious songs, and traditional songs. The December twelfth festival of Saint Lucia, as celebrated by Swedish Lutherans, often includes choral singing, especially the most famous song associated with the holiday, "Santa Lucia."
Swedish-born opera singer Johan Reinold Ortengren came to the United States in 1889 to teach music at the Chicago Musical College, in Chicago, Illinois. He was a sought after singing teacher. He founded the Swedish Glee Club, and directed both Swedish American and American singing groups. He set a high standard for the performance of Swedish song as arranged for choral groups.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century many of the Swedish American choral groups decided to organize, and so the American Union of Swedish Singers was established in Chicago in1892 and continues today. The first performance by member groups was at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
Combining performances of different genres, such as opera, art song, folk song, and choral singing, was fairly common among Swedish American singers. An example is baritone Gustaf Holmquist, who came to the United States with his family in 1875 at the age of fourteen to live in the Swedish community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up singing in choirs and subsequently became the most famous Swedish American singer of his day. He performed as a soloist with the Evanston Musical Club, a Scandinavian choir, at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. He became a soloist with the New York Philharmonic Society. He also regularly appeared with Swedish choral groups and Swedish and Scandinavian music festivals. Throughout his career one of his ambitions was to acquaint American audiences with the range and variety of Swedish song. In this Victor recording he sings "Ack, Vermeland, du sköna" (Dear old Stockholm), a song composed by two Swedish historians, Anders Fryxell and Fredrik August Dahlgren, recorded in 1921.
Another singer of the early twentieth century, Lydia Lindgren, was a beautiful Swedish-born singer who rose from poverty to fame in the United States. She was called "the Swedish Nightingale" by the press, a nickname formerly given to Jenny Lind. In addition to performing opera, she made recordings of Swedish songs, such as the love song from folk tradition, "Jag ser uppå dina ögon" (I see by your eyes), recorded in 1916, and "Glädjens Blomster," (Flowers of joy) a folk song frequently taught to Swedish children.
Joel Mossburg was another Swedish-born singer who sang a wide variety of songs. He came to the United States in 1892, and trained as a singer while working as a stone carver in Chicago, Illinois, eventually becoming a soloist at both the North Shore Jewish Synagogue and the Sixth Presbyterian Church. He was a choir director as well, and headed the American Union of Swedish Singers. He recorded Swedish folk songs, religious songs, choral songs, comic songs, and patriotic anthems. In this selection he performs a song by the Swedish composer Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, "Trollhätten" (the title is the name of a city in western Sweden).
Joel Mossburg recorded several songs by a famous Swedish comic singer of the late nineteenth century, Lars Bondeson – the stage and pen name of Carl Jansson-Öhlin. Bondeson's career was short, but his influence was long-lasting. Through immigrants like Mossburg bringing Bondeson's songs to the United States, Bondeson's repertoire and style of humor became widely known, spreading beyond the Swedish American community. Bondeson also published books of his lyrics, which provided material for Swedish-American comedians long after his death. The character that Carl Jansson-öhlin created in the stage persona of Lars Bondeson was a country boy who got himself into humorous situations both in rural settings and as he encountered the changing world of the industrial era and in his travels to cities. As a trickster he often did all right in the end. His sketches were often filled with mild sexual double-entendre. These ideas for ethnic comedy resonated well with Americans, among whom ethnic humor was immensely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The character of Lars Bondeson is thought to have influenced non-Swedish as well as Swedish comics of the era portraying other rustic characters. In this example of a Bondeson song, "Fotograferingen," Joel Mossburg sings about a country couple going to get their photographs taken. They start out shyly as they are unfamiliar with being photographed, but the best photograph is of the young man with his girl sitting on his lap. In another Bondeson song sung by Mossburg, "Per Svinaherde," a pig farmer makes himself seem worthy of marrying the king's daughter through trickery.
Hjalmar Peterson, who immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1906, created a character very similar to Lars Bondeson, named Olle i Skratthult (Olle from Laughtersville), and performed for enthusiastic Swedish American audiences. His performances included skits, monologues, and songs – a Swedish language version of American vaudeville entertainment. In this example he sings "Storbönnernas vals" (a well-to-do farmer's waltz). "Finska valsen" ("Finnish Waltz"), composed by Hesekiel Wahlrot with lyrics by the popular Swedish performer Ernst Rolf tells of a boy at a rural dance, and was another favorite on the American Swedish stage as performed by the character Olle i Skratthult. The character of Olle i Skratthult was immensely popular, allowing Peterson to form his own company and tour the United States in 1916.
Charles G. Widdén was another comic actor and singer popular among Swedish American audiences in the early twentieth century who made use of rustic comedy inspired by Lars Bondeson. He created his own rustic character, Olle ve kvarna (Olle of the Mill). In this example from his comic repertoire, he sings a traditional song, "Nikolina," in which a young man's hopes of marrying his girl are dashed when he asks her father for his hand and is beaten off, with the violence described in comic terms. In the end the couple resolves to marry after her father is dead (this was also one of the favorite songs performed by Olle i Skratthult). In addition to comic songs, Widdén sang popular songs of the early twentieth century, such as "Kostervalsen," a waltz by the Swedish song writing team of Göran Svenning and David Hellström.
After World War I the United States put severe limits on immigration, greatly reducing the number of new Swedish immigrants. Swedish Americans, always a highly literate and ambitious group, strove to assimilate. By the mid-twentieth century the vast majority of Swedish Americans spoke only English. Professional variety entertainment by and for Swedish speakers had largely disappeared by the1950s. Festivals and choral music also declined. But in the 1960s and 1970s there was a revival due to a strong desire of a new generation to return to their roots. Swedish and Scandinavian festivals are now held in many states. This has once again created venues for choirs and performers singing songs in Swedish. The member groups American Union of Swedish Singers report that they now sing about half their songs in English and half in Swedish, appealing to the audiences of mixed English and Swedish speakers they now encounter.
- "Finnish American Song" (Songs of America)
- "Icelandic American Song" (Songs of America)
- Sweden Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. Finding aid for collections held by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (includes Swedish American).
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.